In the modern organization, since direct verbal insults are considered "over the line," we've developed a variety of alternatives, including a class I call "dismissive gestures." They hurt personally, and they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part II of a little catalog of dismissive gestures.
Dismissive gestures are often tactics for expressing status, consolidating control, or displaying power. As such, their users seek to influence the perceptions of a larger number of people beyond the target — usually the witnesses.
Humans aren't the only species that communicates by facial expressions. Photo of monkey in Bali, by Shawn Allen. Photo of James Randi, courtesy James Randi Educational Foundation.
When used intentionally in this way, these techniques are coercive to varying degrees, because they achieve the desired effect not by eliciting admiration or affection, but rather through fear or intimidation. And when fear or intimidation is the goal, it's always possible that the user of the gesture actually feels fearful or intimidated, too. If you can keep that possibility in mind when you encounter a frequent user, you can more easily manage your own responses to the gestures.
Looking upward, as if to Heaven, communicates, "Spare me!" Sometimes this is combined with hands placed palm-to-palm, fingers pointing upward, in the prayer position; with eye-rolling; with a vocalization, "Puh-lease…;" or with the mouthing of words.
Throw me a lifeline
Breaking eye contact by closing the lids and turning away to look at someone else can be a plea for a lifeline. Breaking eye contact in itself isn't necessarily dismissive. But turning to look at another, even expressionlessly, can communicate, "Please help me out of this or at least vaporize this guy."
Dropping a bag of garbage
Dropping a report from an excessive height says, "This is a package of something foul." The greater the height, the greater the effect. For extra zing, raise it up before dropping it, or perform the whole action over a wastebasket.
Counting your fingers
Looking at one's hand after a handshake communicates distrust. It suggests that your partner's hand might have been dirty, or that you're counting your fingers to check that none have been stolen.
Engaging in sidebar conversation
In meetings, sidebars are always a little impolite, but the expression of disdain escalates with the volume of the sidebar exchange. Sidebar laughing is especially corrosive.
Asynchronous head shaking
Shaking the head "No," is OK if you're asked a question and the answer is No. But shaking the head while the other is talking can feel to the speaker like an interruption saying, "You're out of your mind."
Dismissive gestures vary from culture to culture
Talking while departing
Continuing to talk to someone while turning and walking away, especially if you're saying something the recipient doesn't want to hear, prevents a response. It says, "Whatever you have to say about this is of no interest to me." Extra points for walking into an elevator and having the doors close at exactly the right time.
Dismissive gestures vary from culture to culture, and since every organization has its own microculture, people in your organization probably have some unique dismissive gestures. To see them, you have to look. More next time. TopNext Issue
For more on gestures of all kinds, take a look at Field Guide to Gestures, by Nancy Armstrong and Melissa Wagner. It's complete with full-color illustrations.
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
When organizations suffer painful losses, their responses can sometimes be destructive, further harming the organization and its people. Here are some typical patterns of destructive responses to organizational loss.
Recent research has uncovered a human tendency — possibly universal — to believe that we know others better than others know them, and that we know ourselves better than others know themselves. These beliefs, rarely acknowledged and often wrong, are at the root of many a toxic conflict of long standing.
To make the bullying stop, many targets of bullies try to defend themselves. But defense alone is not sufficient — someone must make the bully stop. That's why counterattack is much more likely to work.
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